Most Dickens novels have memorable but otherwise useless titles. I mean, Nicholas Nickleby is a name that sticks, but gives no hint about what it is in the book. I have a tag for each novel that helped me keep them straight before I read them. Still helps, actually. NN has abusive Yorkshire schools, Martin Chuzzlewit goes to America, Little Dorrit is the debtors’ prison novel.
Little Amy Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea Prison, where her typically useless Dickens father has been imprisoned for twenty-three years.* So Amy is an adult, twenty-two when the novel begins, although people often mistake her for a child. It is the father, not the daughter, who is the debtor, so although Amy lives in the prison she can leave it to earn money which she uses to support, at various times, her frivolous but spirited sister, her useless brother, and, always, her parasitical father. Little Dorrit is little, symbolically, because of her self-sacrifice and the exploitation by her family, physiologically, because of malnutrition during childhood.
How does Dickens make the virtuous Amy Dorrit interesting or “real,” to the extent that she is (frankly, she fades in and out a bit)? He has a couple of tools. First, and more interesting to me, but perversely what I do not want to write about, is the symbolic world that Amy creates for herself. We do not cling to her thoughts like we would in a Woolf novel, but we do see what she sees:
Then she would flit along the yard, climb the scores of stairs that led to her room, and take her seat at the window. Many combinations did those spikes upon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit sat there musing. (I. 24).
Dickens rings a dozen changes on this passage, Amy’s view of those spikes, but I picked this one because it is followed by Amy’s Parable of the Princess and the Shadow, a story she tells, and another way Dickens defines Amy’s character by describing the symbolic world she creates herself (and shares with the symbolic world of the novel).
The other trick Dickens has, one that I now see is characteristic of his late novels, is to complicate her virtue. Amy is too self-sacrificing, too good, and the novel is ethically complex enough to recognize that this is a problem, that Amy, to use current lingo, enables some of the worst behavior of her father and other relatives. Readers looking for Strong Female Characters will find her frustrating: no one is stronger, but her strength is misapplied, and she has no interest in independence. Little Dorrit has a caring temperament, and would have been, for example, an outstanding nurse – she is akin to a number of characters in the Elizabeth Gaskell stories that Dickens was editing and publishing at the time. But she has allowed her family, her father especially, to manipulate her sense of duty.
For the first half of the novel, Amy is martyr to her family, which, for all of her strength, damages her. About halfway through, Amy is relieved of her labors, but is also no longer able to be a caregiver, which turns out to be even worse for her, psychologically (I am simplifying a little – e.g., the love plot, her homesickness). This is now an interesting character, yes? And all done with plot, plot used to test or highlight character. The heroine grows in complexity as the plot unfolds.
A disadvantage: she is thus not all that interesting early on, and I am not sure the balance Amy achieves at the end of the novel is as satisfying as it could be, although I am pretty sure that Dickens is deliberately maintaining some of the complications rather than brushing them all away as he would in one of his early novels – “the noisy and the eager, the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar” (last line).
Still, it is enormously satisfying when, at the end of the book, Little Dorrit, finally escaping from the draining leeches who have always surrounded her rapidly becomes (spoiler alert) Giant Dorrit. The final chapter, when Amy wades into the estuary of the Thames and single-handedly demolishes the invading Russian fleet, and final scene, when the Queen awards Amy the Victoria Cross (a forgivable anachronism), are triumphs.
* I was saddened to learn that, despite the closure of the Marshalsea in 1842, obooki is currently imprisoned there.